Documentaries On Britney Spears, R. Kelly Lead To Change : Consider This from NPR Last month, R&B singer R. Kelly was found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking. Days later, a judge suspended Jamie Spears as the conservator of his daughter Britney Spears' estate. While these cases are completely unrelated, they do have one crucial thing in common: a massive online following, and an ecosystem of think pieces and documentaries that fuel conversation online.

NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans discusses the role documentary series have played in cases like R. Kelly's and Britney Spears. He says it's part of a larger movement that some are calling "consequence culture."

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R. Kelly, Britney Spears, And The Rise Of 'Consequence Culture'

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In a New York City courtroom last week, the R&B singer R. Kelly was found guilty.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: After decades of suspicion and allegations, a jury finding that singer guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking.

CORNISH: And at the time of those crimes, many of the victims were teenage girls.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Dozens of witnesses coming forward with depraved allegations of abuse - physical, emotional, sexual.

CORNISH: R. Kelly now faces a possible sentence of 10 years to life in prison.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: This was actually something that was decades in the making,

CORNISH: Days later, in a Los Angeles courtroom, a judge suspended Jamie Spears as the conservator of his daughter Britney Spears' estate.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: A judge making the ruling just moments ago, ending the 13-year arrangement the pop star called abusive.

CORNISH: Britney Spears had been living with this conservatorship since 2008, which meant her father controlled nearly all decisions about her personal life and finances. Now, these two cases are completely unrelated, yet they have one crucial thing in common - a massive online following.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: A long awaited win for the #FreeBritney movement.

CORNISH: And an entire ecosystem of think pieces and documentaries which feed that online conversation.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: The development falls on the heels of an explosive New York Times documentary detailing allegations that Jamie...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: The "Surviving R. Kelly" docuseries really just exposed a lot of what Black women organizers...

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: A documentary or special report or an investigation can remind people of what happened and say, hey, you know, maybe we should reconsider this, and maybe there should be consequences to it.

CORNISH: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.

DEGGANS: So it's the idea that whatever sort of erasure that happens or what punitive action that happens or criticism that happens, that it's a consequence, it's not an unfair cancellation.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - in the age of true crime shows and bingeable television, what we watch on screen may have a real impact in a courtroom. Coming up, NPR's Eric Deggans unpacks the rise of consequence culture. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, October 8.


CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. And a quick note, of course, there are going to be some descriptions of sexual abuse coming up in this report. Back in August, when the R. Kelly federal trial was just beginning, I spoke with Dream Hampton, one of the producers of the 2019 lifetime docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly."

DREAM HAMPTON: I believe that when he was acquitted in '08, his behavior kind of escalated.

CORNISH: Back then, R. Kelly had been in court for charges of child pornography. And Hampton says this was a situation where things got worse before they got better.

HAMPTON: He really was beyond the pale, you know, by the time we did "Surviving R. Kelly" and these women were brave enough to sit before our cameras.

CORNISH: The Hampton documentary featured victim after victim sharing their experiences


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The first time he was physically abusive, I was 17. And I said hello to someone that I shouldn't have while I was looking at someone that I shouldn't have been looking at.

HAMPTON: I don't think, if they'd not done that, if had not seen the pain, then we'd be where we were. I didn't expect "Surviving R. Kelly" to be this cultural event for Black folks.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He took me outside and smacked me and said, like, you're only supposed to look at me. And I don't understand this. I just cried and said, OK.

DEGGANS: It took all of their stories, and it put them together in one narrative.

CORNISH: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans again.

DEGGANS: You had the women, women who said that they were victims of him, face the camera and tell their own stories.


LISA VAN ALLEN: My name is Lisa Van Allen. I was 17 years old when I met Rob.

DEGGANS: There is a power in them speaking directly to the camera and saying, this is what happened to me that transcends, you know, a newspaper article or a magazine article, even a reporter translating that.


VAN ALLEN: You know, I was kind of surprised when I actually ended up meeting him because I just thought I'd be the last one he would try to talk to because I was probably the youngest one there.

DEGGANS: These stories came to the public at a time when we were already thinking about #MeToo and reconsidering what assault meant and what harassment meant and what listening to women meant.


VAN ALLEN: He wanted me to take off the little dressy clothes I had on. It went into him suggesting sexual acts like oral and sex.

DEGGANS: People's ears were in a different place. They were able to hear what these women were saying in a way that they couldn't earlier.


VAN ALLEN: I didn't want to tell him, no, I guess, because I was...

CORNISH: Now, I spoke with Eric about how this documentary and others have led to significant shifts in public perception and actual change, and how that's different from simply creating more true crime clickbait.

DEGGANS: I mean, there's going to be a true crime element to it because, in particularly in "Surviving R. Kelly" and in "Framing Britney Spears" and some of the Britney Spears docs, you know, you're returning to something that is a legal issue. You know, "Surviving R. Kelly," I think, led to the public impetus that led to him being prosecuted. And "Framing Britney Spears" drew the world's attention to this conservatorship in a way that it would - that I think most people, they didn't know much about it.

And I think when people heard how Britney Spears fans were protesting the conservatorship, they may have been inclined to shrug it off and say, well, this was just the reaction of very intense fans who love this woman and are being unreasonable. But when The New York Times steps in and says, hey, there might be something to this, then that adds some additional weight. And we saw a lot of movement on that case after the first documentary, "Framing Britney Spears," comes out.

Just because a celebrity is at the heart of a story, or just because it's a story that has been exploited in the past by the media, that doesn't mean that these modern stories are doing that. If there is a value to what they're doing, if they are unearthing new information and getting people to look at it in a different way and making the case that, as a society, we should think differently about this stuff, then I think that justifies the look and sort of allows them to say that this is not just a true crime or an exploitative situation, a Netflix show or an HBO documentary or a podcast.

CORNISH: None of this is the same as due process, though. I mean, is this the only path to getting justice for some people? What are we looking at here?

DEGGANS: There is a long tradition in journalism of investigative projects prompting the larger society to reconsider things that people didn't know about or that people didn't know enough about. So on the one hand, for somebody on - who's being examined or somebody who's on the business end of these documentaries, it may not feel fair.

But, you know, when you're talking about somebody like R. Kelly, who for decades used his wealth and power to manage his public image in a way to keep these allegations out of the press as much as he could and is, you know, is accused of intimidating witnesses, he's accused of manipulating things to keep the truth from coming to light, then you're talking about a different situation. And I think what we've seen is that these documentaries come out, and then there's a legal procedure where the bar for proof is higher and they have investigative powers. And if at the end of that process somebody is convicted of something, that gives you a sense that there was some there there.

CORNISH: So many of these documentaries really seem to reveal the ways that media, the ways that journalism fell short - right? - the ways that people did not look hard enough or long enough, especially if a celebrity is involved. Do you think that we're taking away anything from all of these documentaries, right? Is there enough scrutiny about how the media treated these folks over the last 20, 30 years?

DEGGANS: Certainly. And I, you know, I think that was a major lesson from both the R. Kelly documentary in one way and the Britney Spears documentaries in another. You know, "Framing Britney Spears" in particular spent a fair amount of time showing journalists asking really insulting questions of Britney Spears, showing the impact of hordes of paparazzi following her around all the time, showing all of the crazy things that some people would do to get a picture of her or to try and get some - a little whisper of information about her.

And I think editors now realize how invasive those questions can be and how invasive and damaging those practices are. And I think responsible news organizations are going to think twice about that kind of stuff. And in the same way that the #MeToo movement was about urging people to pay attention when women come forward and say they have been harassed or assaulted, I think "Surviving R. Kelly" made that case that there were women throughout the years who were coming forward and saying that they had had problems with R. Kelly. And for some reason they didn't get the level of attention that they should have.

And, you know, that finger points at us as an audience, too. You know, some of us laughed along with jokes about R. Kelly and the way he, you know, would would try to seduce young women. Some of us laughed at jokes about Britney Spears that poked fun at, you know, her struggles with mental health. So, you know, we own a bit of this, too. And I hope everybody thinks a little differently about these subjects as a result of watching these documentaries.

CORNISH: So some other documentaries, I think, that tried to, again, unearth some history or revisit the case of Woody Allen, right? The popular series called "Allen V. Farrow," that was released on HBO earlier this year. I don't know if you can talk about that in terms of impact. And then another situation, Michael Jackson and "Leaving Neverland." That was another documentary - right? - that was focused on two men who allege they were molested by Jackson as young boys. And, of course, Michael Jackson is dead. What does consequence culture look like in these situations?

DEGGANS: Yeah. In those situations, it's a little different because the things that they're talking about happened are not a sort of an ongoing thing. You know, as you said, Michael Jackson is dead, so the idea of trying to hold him to account may have limited value. And the allegations that Dylan Farrow made against Woody happened a long time ago. There may not be many minds changed, there may not be much that happens in the moment, although, you know, I would...

CORNISH: There have been consequences for the reputations of those men.

DEGGANS: That's what I was going to say. And I imagine that, you know, some people may hesitate to work with Woody Allen. Some people may hesitate to watch his movies. Some people may hesitate to listen to Michael Jackson records, and they may at least think about what it means and how some of these allegations may lead to artistic choices that Woody Allen made or that Michael Jackson made. And it may lead them to think differently about the art that these men made. So I wouldn't - you know, there are - there can be consequences. It just won't be as dramatic as something like R. Kelly, you know, eventually being convicted of crimes or Britney Spears getting out of her conservatorship.

CORNISH: These documentaries are working in that they're finding huge audiences. So should we expect a lot more?

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I think there's going to be a lot of efforts to get us to reconsider how we have reacted to past scandals and past public figures and maybe bring a little more compassion to it and maybe bring a little more knowledge about how mental health works and, you know, what assault is about and, you know, all these different things that we feel differently about now than maybe we did 15, 20, even 30 years ago.

CORNISH: Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic and author of the book "Race-Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation." You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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